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How Uber can fix its reputation

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

Embattled ride-hailing startup Uber needs to make some big changes if it wants to improve its culture and public perception. Just this weekend, The New York Times ran a critical profile of CEO Travis Kalanick, which suggested that Uber’s “on the brink of implosion.”

“I’d strongly recommend authentic internal and external communications programs — rather than highly polished overworked corporate statements — as well as legitimate unconscious bias training for all employees, an ongoing feedback loop and measurement of satisfaction for customers, drivers and employees with management,” suggested Natalie Kerris, global tech chair at Edelman, the world’s largest public relations agency, and former crisis communications expert at Apple (AAPL) and Twitter (TWTR).

One other thing Kerris recommends: “A zero tolerance policy for any future bad behavior.”

Kerris emphasized that in Uber’s case, it’s not just a PR problem, but a far more systemic issue. The company must address underlying culture issues, particularly around diversity, she said.

The $68 billion ride-hailing company’s reputation has taken a beating recently following a slew of scandals over the last three months, including allegations of sexual harassment and developing secret software to outsmart local authorities, not to mention the loss of at least eight executives.

In February, The New York Times reported that 200,000 people had deleted their Uber accounts. It turns out Uber’s internal business operations make a difference, at least for some customers.

“Uber is in a tough spot, and the management team clearly needs to rebuild their reputation, brand and trust with their employees, customers, drivers and investors,” Kerris said.

“An arrogant behemoth”

Has Uber lost its service-centric, customer-centric attitude?

Dean Crutchfield, a New York-based branding specialist, struck an even more dire tone than Kerris.

“The first thing they have to recognize is that brands, like people, get sick,” Crutchfield explained. “Uber needs to admit it’s slightly broken. This was a cool, game-changing brand, and now it’s an arrogant behemoth. It sort of lost itself in its success. One has to respect customer and driver’s emotions, and I think they’ve forgotten about that. It’s a problem not just of their business, it’s a problem of the leadership. That leadership reflects poorly on the brand.”

Crutchfield pointed to United Airlines’ (UAL) recent controversy, in which a passenger was forcibly removed from a flight. United CEO Oscar Munoz exacerbated the public backlash by initially blaming the passenger for the brouhaha. United subsequently issued several apologies and promised a sweeping review of policies, particularly around crew behavior and passenger incentives.

“[T]here was a real arrogance where the CEO did not recognize their weaknesses and faults,” Crutchfield said.

Uber, for its part, knows it has a serious problem on its hands. Kalanick told employees in March he planned on hiring a COO “who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey.” Uber board member Arianna Huffington, meanwhile, is helping lead an “urgent” investigation into one engineer’s sexual harassment claims against the company.  

But while that’s certainly a start, it’s clear company-wide changes to Uber must go far deeper.

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.  

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